Searching for safety at music venues

In a windowless room in City Hall, the police lieutenant reads hip-hop lyrics aloud as clean-cut professionals listen quietly.

"Mind on my riches, 36 shots in my clip and this sh-- rippin', listen you can hear death reppin,' " he intones.

The group discusses whether the hip-hop act's concert would attract a potentially violent crowd, then suggests that the club holding the show bring in two police officers to head off any problems.

This is Modesto's Entertainment Commission in action. It's been a year since the commission started meeting, charged with the task of keeping the city's music and dance scene safe, but vibrant.

There are some kinks to work out in the new system. Only a third of the 150 businesses that likely need permits have applied for them. Some club managers are chafing at the change.

But supporters say it's an improvement over the all-or-nothing system that predated the commission. Back then, former Police Chief Roy Wasden had the only vote on whether a club could have live music.

There's still some confusion over the rules. At a recent commission meeting, a man in the audience worried that he needed a permit for a running event where a loudspeaker would play the theme from "Chariots of Fire." (He doesn't, said Commissioner Chris Ricci.)

Some organizations holding special events are submitting late or incomplete applications. Even the Police Department recently missed a deadline and handed in a late application for a crab feed fund-raiser for its police canine association.

Tardy paperwork forces the commission to hold special meetings to accommodate permit requests in time for special events. The extra staff time costs the city upward of $500 per meeting, said Mary Otten, the city's recreation manager who also oversees permits.

At the commission's Thursday meeting, it will look at charging a fee to expedite late applications.

Firkin & Fox bar and restaurant general manager Tony Arnebeck said he likes that idea. He'd like the city to consider using streamlined applications for smaller venues. Arnebeck, who recently applied for a permit for Firkin & Fox's St. Patrick's Day celebration, said he was overwhelmed by the six-page application, which asked for an 11-by-17 diagram of the event drawn to scale.

"I'm not an architect," Arne- beck said. "There's so much attention to detail, and they have to realize the little guys, the nonpromoters, have no idea what this stuff means."

Arnebeck said he was grateful for the help of city staff in navigating the new system. Others made similar comments, grumbling about the cost and paperwork, but crediting city staff and commissioners with a cooperative attitude.

Anonymous critique

A manager at an eating establishment that sometimes has music said the new system is too heavy-handed.

The manager said her business was slapped with a $500 ticket when it refused to outfit doormen in jackets labeled "Security." Such uniforms could scare off older diners, said the manager, who asked not to be named because she'll likely bring an application before the commission. Commissioner Ricci, general manager of the Fat Cat club on 11th Street, said business owners shouldn't balk at the new regulations.

"It's difficult to spend 90 minutes to fill out a permit application, but ... if you're an event producer and you're not willing to take the time to make sure the event is safe for the public, then I question whether you should be doing that event in the first place," Ricci said.

The commission is experiencing growing pains, Ricci said. But he believes it's on track to achieve the goal of promoting entertainment while keeping Modesto safe.

The hip-hop act whose lyrics were read aloud at the commission meeting is a perfect example, Ricci said. The act was scheduled to perform at Club 141 on South Santa Cruz Avenue, a venue that holds about 120 people. Police researched the hip-hop group online and were concerned about what they found: pictures of the artists in bulletproof vests. Officers called police in Oakley, where the group last performed and found out that fistfights broke out at the group's concert.

Event had 'hyphy-type' look

A gang expert said the concert looked like a "hyphy-type event." Those words get attention in Modesto because in 2006 police were overwhelmed by a large group of teens that attended an event where hyphy, a style of rap music, was played.

"This type of music gets people pumped up and gets them very excited," Lt. Andy Schlenker told the commission. "The theme of the music is anti-establishment and anti-law enforcement, which is a concern for us."

He recommended that four police officers monitor the concert.

Then the club owner argued his case to the commission. Paying $62 an hour for each officer on top of the six security guards his club uses would break him financially, he said.

"Our whole goal was to make money and bring in a hot name," he said. "We don't want it to get out of hand. That makes us look bad."

Commissioners came up with a compromise: The club would pay for two officers. If they needed to call for backup, the club would pay that bill also. Under the old system, it's likely the police would have refused to issue a permit for the event, Ricci said.

"That is a beautiful example of what the commission's job is," Ricci said. "The Police Department has a job, which is to keep the city safe, and that's the entertainment commission's job, too. But the Entertainment Commission also has to make sure the regulations don't put people out of business."

The Entertainment Commission's next regular meeting is Thursday at 4 p.m. in Room 2001, Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St., Modesto.

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at or 578-2378. Follow her at